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Monday, March 22, 2004

The performing arts center and the mall

The New Yorker has a fabulous piece on the two pioneers of the American shopping mall, Victor Gruen and A. Alfred Taubman. Gruen created what is recognized as the archtypical shopping mall (two stories, facing inward, air conditioned, anchored by two major retailers, and featuring a central courtyard) in Edina, Minnesota, fifty years ago. Taubman took Gruen's early lead, and perfected the art of mall design through more elegant social engineering, traffic flow, and strategic store arrangement.

It's a fabulous article on its own, and well worth a read. But it's also a fascinating sidebar to the co-evolution of another American innovation: the multi-venue performing arts center. As Gruen and Taubman were just advancing the art of the shopping mall in the late 1950s, New York City was breaking ground on Lincoln Center (see the archives for more history), a new concept in performing arts aggregation. Lincoln Center was to become the model for dozens of such 'arts malls' that sprouted around the country in the following decades (and are still sprouting today).

It may sound like a crass comparison, but the concepts are clearly the same: aggregate 'sellers' in a controlled environment to build the volume of 'buyers' and to create a 'destination' rather than just another store. Admittedly, the intentions may have been different at the start -- with the shopping malls gunning for leisure spending, and Lincoln Center seeking to reshape a part of the city through culture (plus, of course, the nationalism that launched so much high culture in the United States).

But over time, and as touring Broadway became the fuel for success among these new centers in the 1980s and '90s, the economic model grew increasingly similar. From the article:

...well-run department stores are the engines of malls. They have powerful brand names, advertise heavily, and carry extensive cosmetics lines (shopping malls are, at bottom, delivery systems for lipstick) -- all of which generate enormous shopping traffic. The point of a mall -- the reason so many stores are clustered together in one building -- is to allow smaller, less powerful retailers to share in that traffic. A shopping center is an exercise in cooperative capitalism. It is considered successful (and the mall owner makes the most money) when the maximum number of department-store customers are lured into the mall.

Substitute 'Broadway touring season' for 'department stores', and 'resident performance organizations' for 'less powerful retailers' and you get an interesting picture. I don't mean to stretch the analogy too far (the resident symphony is not an 'Orange Julius' stand in this equation). But in the modern performing arts center, the large-scale touring productions have become the cash engines that subsidize all other tenants, and balance the bottom line.

The most striking thing about this comparison, however, is how differently the savvy mall developer and most cultural facility developers speak about what they do. With the shopping mall, at least among these two visionaries, design is about the consumers and how they engage with their world -- what draws them in, keeps them in, and lowers their barriers to purchase. With cultural facilities, we seem, instead, to focus on the producers in the equation -- the symphony, theater company, road shows -- and what they need to produce their seasons.

I'm not suggesting we make performing arts centers more like shopping malls. I'm suggesting that they already are like shopping malls (of a glorious and wonderful kind). So we might as well learn from the masters.

Thanks to my father for sending me the article in the first place. It's always nice to have an extra set of eyes in the world.

posted on Monday, March 22, 2004 | permalink